Serie A Round 2, 1997-98. The Stadio Renato Dall’Ara played host to a Bologna versus Inter thriller. All eyes were fixed on two players, both having recently made their club debuts.
It was a showdown between Roberto Baggio and Ronaldo. Both found the target as it ended 4-2 in favour of the Nerazzurri. The Brazilian displayed his blistering pace and finishing prowess, while Il Divin Codino mastered the dead ball. He netted twice, first from a wonderful free-kick that set the Dall’Ara alight. The second was a penalty, to make it three goals in two Felsinei matches. For a player who aimed to be involved in the World Cup the following summer in France, this was a perfect start to the campaign.
Sixteen years later, another creative attacker has left the bright lights of Milano for Emilia-Romagna. He too is chasing a World Cup dream in the sleepy provinces.
Antonio Cassano’s move from Inter to Parma came as a shock. FantAntonio left the club he’s long supported after just a year, on a permanent deal. It was thought a reunion between he and Walter Mazzarri – the two enjoyed a fruitful time at Sampdoria – would spark his fire. Yet Cassano declared the tactician forced him out, something Mazzarri denies. His predecessor Andrea Stramaccioni also had issues with Cassano - the player was even dropped after a verbal altercation - and his dream move became anything but dream-like.
In 1997, Baggio clashed with Milan boss Arrigo Sacchi – after also disagreeing with both Fabio Capello and Oscar Tabarez during his time there. The pair butted heads during Sacchi’s Italy reign and in Milan the situation only deteriorated. Baggio did not wear the Azzurri shirt between September 1995 and April 1997. He was recalled by Cesare Maldini and scored against Poland. Despite playing in Italy’s 0-0 draw with Georgia days before that Inter showdown, Baggio wasn’t included for the crunch two-legged playoff with Russia.
The then 30-year-old Baggio made no qualms about his aim: “I’ve chosen Bologna, a choice which makes me very happy... To find a team like Bologna in the year before a World Cup is great. Everything is at stake for me and I hope to make it to France. I want to prove that the people who have written me off are wrong.”
He did just that. By June, Baggio was back in the Nazionale setup, playing one pre-World Cup friendly. He featured in four games and scored twice in France. A total of 22 goals for Bologna – bettering his previous best of 21 in 1992-93 for Juventus – convinced Maldini and rekindled the Baggio love affair across the peninsula. He was warmly received by his new fans. Four thousand people watched Baggio’s first trial match with his new teammates, 27,000 purchased season tickets, an all-time Rossoblu record.
Renzo Ulivieri’s newly promoted side ended 1996-97 in seventh. With Baggio in tow they finished eighth and qualified for the Intertoto Cup. They would then enjoy their first European jaunt in nearly a decade. The non-ponytailed Baggio ended third in the Capocannoniere standings despite a row with Ulivieri, which had seen the No 10 dropped from the side. Baggio dispelled any doubts about his ability following two less-than-fulfilling campaigns at Milanello. After returning from France he would sign for Inter.
This is what the soon-to-be 31-year-old Cassano hopes to emulate. He too has fallen by the Azzurri wayside for some time, last featuring in the Euro 2012 Final. The Bari native was an integral figure for Cesare Prandelli in qualifying and the tournament itself, but has since not been called up. His wayward season at Inter has done no favours, especially the Stramaccioni fallout which goes against Prandelli’s code of ethics. When speaking to the media, Cassano made it clear the World Cup – a tournament he has never played at - is his ambition.
He joins a Parma side coming off a top half finish in 2012-13. They’ve started the transfer period aggressively and Cassano is their crown jewel. He’ll be bossed by Roberto Donadoni, a man who put faith in the player during his two-year Azzurri stint, and perhaps he too will drive ticket sales upwards.
There is no reason why Cassano’s international exile will continue should he enjoy a Baggio-like campaign. He admits there’s more in the tank to give. A season in the provinces could be the breath of fresh air Cassano needs to convince Prandelli he still has an Azzurri future. It did wonders for Baggio.